Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 8, 2018

A Surreal World Cup, A Surprising Final Four

At times the last three weeks have felt like an immersion course in the work of Anton Chekhov. The scenes from Russia have been filled with mostly decent, well-meaning characters, all striving toward a worthy goal. Yet as they must in a tournament in which only one team can claim the ultimate prize, most of them ultimately fail, and are last seen sitting forlorn on the pitch, accompanied only by their helplessness. As if watching not a soccer tournament but The Seagull or Uncle Vanya, we in the audience have been drawn in at least as much by the mood of these games as by the results. In Chekhov’s writings it is represented by things unsaid, by a glance on the stage or a sigh on the page. In this World Cup, the mood has been built on the long passages of back and forth play, tension slowly escalating with each passing minute until the sudden strike of a ball into the net. And if Chekhov was known for eschewing a normal linear plot, then surely these matches, with surreal outcomes piling one atop another, have done his legacy proud.

One week from now it will all be over, and one national team will stand before 78,000 at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, its member fingering their gold medals as they hand from one to another the 14-inch solid gold trophy that is the unprepossessing symbol of international soccer glory. Each of the four semifinalists brings an interesting story to the World Cup’s final week, but their common tale is who they are not. They are not Brazil. They are not Spain. They are not Germany.

The sports analysts at FiveThirtyEeight.com developed a complex but impressive forecast model for the World Cup, based on a Soccer Power Index (SPI) rating that combines recent results in international play with an evaluation of roster strength drawn from the results of the professional clubs are the “day jobs” for each player. At the outset of play the teams with the highest SPI ratings, and thus those given the best chance at winning the cup, were Brazil, Spain and Germany. That statistical analysis squared with the opinions of most pundits, and had Germany won Group F and the Knockout Stage gone according to expectations, the three powerhouse squads would be readying themselves for this week’s semifinal matches, with France as the fourth survivor and decided underdog.

But Germany didn’t win Group F, nor did it finish second to at least slip into the round of 16. Die Mannschafft had but a single golden moment at this World Cup, the free kick goal by Toni Kroos in stoppage time that lifted his team to a 2-1 victory over Sweden. But that followed a stunning 1-0 loss to Mexico in Germany’s first game and preceded an utterly lackluster 2-0 whitewash by lowly South Korea that left the pre-tournament favorite in last place it its group.

Brazil and Spain fared only marginally better, in that both at least advanced to the Knockout Stage. But that will be little consolation to fans looking forward to a national outpouring of elation when the Cup was theirs, for both teams were soon dismissed.

La Furia Roja went at the first opportunity, unable to penetrate Russia’s defenses through ninety minutes of regular play, stoppage time at the end of both halves, and an additional thirty minutes of extra time. The one goal tallied in Spain’s favor was an own goal knocked in by Russia’s Sergei Ignashevich at the 12th minute. Artyom Dzyuba tied the game for the home squad late in the first half, and the two teams eventually were left with penalty kicks to decide a winner. Trailing 3-4, Spain’s Iago Aspas saw his try deflected high and wide by the Russian goaltender as the host nation erupted with joy.

The Seleção at least made it through the round of 16, dispatching Mexico 2-0. But Brazil’s long history of World Cup glory, which can surely be intimidating to opponents, must also be a weight on the current generation of players, who have not met their country’s high expectations. In the quarterfinals that weight proved too heavy, and Brazil fell to Belgium 2-1, in a match that was made that close only by a late tally by the team in canary and blue.

In a tournament full of the unexpected, gone too are the seventh and eighth ranked squads in 538’s ratings. While those rankings suggest that neither Argentina nor Portugal were expected to be semifinalists, the fact that the two best players on the planet, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are part of their rosters led many to believe that either or both could crash the Cup’s final week of play.

Instead the unlikely semifinalists are France, Belgium, England, and Croatia. Les Bleu are the least surprising, fourth in the 538 ratings and picked by a few analysts as capable of a surprise. France has come close since its one World Cup championship, won at home in 1998. It made the Final in 2006, falling to Italy. Four years ago, France lost to eventual champion Germany in the quarterfinals. Going further back in World Cup history, the French have lost three semifinals to either Brazil or Germany. With those powers off the stage, 2018 would seem to be France’s best chance to finally claim a second Cup and establish itself as a true soccer power.

But first the French must get past Belgium. The Red Devils do not have a distinguished World Cup history. But what Belgium does have, as it chases its first title, is a lineup filled with stars of the top European clubs. The country’s talent level is as high as it has ever been, and the individual stars have shown an ability to play as a cohesive unit, most notably in the solid 2-1 victory over Brazil. A sleeper pick prior to the start of the tournament, Belgium is no longer a surprise.

On the other side of the bracket, Croatia faces off against England. The Vatreni are the closest thing left to a Cinderella, standing ninth in the 538 ratings. Not even eligible for Cup play until 1994, Croatia has matched its best showing ever by making it to the semifinals, as it did in 1998. Since then the Croatians haven’t made it out of the Group Stage. That history says that this team is unlikely to advance, but this tournament has delivered the unexpected time after time, and if there is a team that is playing without pressure at this point, it is Croatia.

It has been more than half a century since the Three Lions claimed England’s sole World Cup in 1966. Yet fans in the country that hosts the world’s top club league and in which the rules of the modern game were promulgated claim a deep tie to the world’s most popular sport. Throughout the tournament the cry of English fans has been that the Cup is “coming home.” The very young English squad seems unaware of the demons that have plagued England over the decades – the near misses and penalty kick defeats that have left fans bitterly disappointed. This team has won the country’s first Knockout Stage match since 2006 and its first World Cup game on penalty kicks ever. Perhaps, just perhaps, those English fans are on to something.

The statistical mavens rate France a slight favorite over Belgium, and England a somewhat better bet against Croatia. Whichever of the first two prevail will be the pick, again slightly, at the Final. The only certainty is that three of four will ultimately be disappointed, this is a wide open final week, and if the pattern holds, the unexpected is sure to happen. Chekhov could not have written it any better.

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Responses

  1. This recap reminds me of the old Lowell Thomas MovieTone news features I saw in the theater when I was a kid. I’m looking forward to the final event.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. Now we know who will be in that final. France, with a chance to cement its claim to the top tier of national teams, and Croatia, which wasn’t even a country for the first fourteen World Cup tournaments, and is the second smallest nation to send a team through to the final. France will be favored, but the way this tournament has gone that should be the clearest signal to take out a second mortgage and bet everything on Croatia! It will be fun to watch.

      M-


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